Understanding the benefits of music education for three to five-year-old children

Three to five year olds love to engage with music and movement and naturally enjoy singing, dancing, exploring sound sources, listening and being creative. At this age, children also experience many great advances in development. Music education can be extremely beneficial in supporting this development, helping children establish crucial physical and social–emotional skills. It can also play a key role in many other aspects of lifelong learning, including improving literacy and language abilities and laying the foundation for proficiency in music.  

It is important for educators to understand why music education is important and plan for ways to effectively incorporate it into early learning settings to support children’s development.  

Image: supplied, Julia Rennick

Promoting physical development  

Music education provides extensive opportunities for children to develop and refine their gross and fine motor skills, enhancing their overall physical development. Their growing brains need rich movement activities and kinaesthetic experiences to develop these gross motor skills and their coordination. Activities that encourage young children to move their bodies through space—such as dancing, jumping, hopping, skipping, rolling, twirling, crawling, running, walking on tiptoe and using instruments—are great for developing these skills. In particular, simple circle dances can work well for this age group, as they incorporate forward, backward and sideway movements and require group cooperation. Some children can find it challenging to move without bumping into others; these activities develop children physically which improves their balance (proprioception), flexibility and spatial awareness. Similarly, playing instruments like xylophones and glockenspiels with mallets can enhance children’s hand–eye coordination and fine motor development. These are necessary abilities required for writing. Finger plays for example, Round and round the garden, Tommy Thumb, Chook, Chook, develop fine motor (eye, hand co-ordination and control of the arm, hand and fingers), as well as exercising and coordinating the small muscles. Finger plays help with counting and numeracy, they can also be calming. Clapping games improve muscle tone.  

Enhancing social–emotional skills  

Quality music education can also help build young children’s social–emotional skills. For example, a music session held during group play can support the development of key social skills such as turn-taking and sharing. It can also provide opportunities to develop and extend children’s listening abilities through stimulating activities such as challenging them to identify instruments played out of sight.  

At this age, not all children may be able to articulate their feelings. Musical experiences can be used to teach children how to identify and deal with their emotions. Activities such as playing a drum loudly or listening to calming music can help children release their emotions in non-verbal ways. Asking a child if a piece of music makes them happy or sad, or if they can draw a picture as they listen to the music can also be an effective way for them to understand what emotions they are experiencing.  

Supporting lifelong learning 

Everyone can benefit from music education. Celebrated music educators such as Carl Orff, Shinichi Suzuki and Zoltán Kodály found that all children are born with the ability to respond to and make music, just as humans are all born with the ability to acquire language. Indeed, the two are related! The positive impact of music instruction on early literacy skills can be seen in the improvement of young children’s phonemic awareness and language abilities. Through listening to songs, children are introduced to rhyming text and rhythmic patterns—an understanding of which is essential for emergent readers. 

For three to five year olds, musical concepts such as tempo (fast/slow), dynamics (loud/soft) and pitch (high/low) are introduced. With encouragement and time, children will begin to compose their own music and notate it through graphic representations.  

These elements give children a solid foundation for further development of their musical literacy and proficiency as they get older. 

A focus on quality, positive musical education in early childhood can also help children establish a lifelong relationship with music.  I have taught thousands of young children, many of whom have carried on to learn an instrument, to sing and dance. These experiences continue to enrich children’s lives. 

Incorporating music education in early childhood settings 

As a music educator, I believe that every child has a right to learn about music—it is not only for the musically gifted. There are many different and inclusive ways that music education can be incorporated into early childhood settings to support children’s development. 

My philosophy is to encourage a playful and creative approach to exploring music: one that acknowledges the fundamental role of play in young children’s learning and development. Children aged three to five years are in the pre-operational period of cognitive development (two to seven years), where symbolic play and pretending develops. They may turn a banana into a sword or a broom into a horse. Have dress-ups available so they can pretend to be someone else. Symbolic play underpins language skills and boosts creativity.  

To support this, nursery rhymes and songs like Waltzing Matilda, Fair Rosa, Five Grey Elephants, Humpty Dumpty can be dramatised to activate imaginative or pretend play, in addition to singing, moving, co-operating and working together with their peers. Experiences such as these also help children enjoy and get interested in the arts. At each point during the process, learning takes place.  

Preschoolers (four to five year olds) particularly enjoy dramatizing Waltzing Matilda. Steps involved: 

  • They listen as I sing the song. 
  • We talk about the meaning of the song, the characters, the Australian words used e.g. Jumbuck for a sheep, and the tragic ending. (Clearly you must know your children and families very well and decide if this is appropriate for them).  
  • We talk about verse and chorus – what’s the difference? 
  • Ask who would like to play the parts. 
  • For the more cautious and reserved children, they can be important musicians in the ‘band’ playing non-melodic instruments in the chorus. 
  • Dramatize, sing and play. There are always master players, children who are skilled in role playing and they can often encourage others to participate more fully. 

I also believe it is important to introduce music to children from a wide array of genres they may not hear or experience elsewhere. This gives them the opportunity to decide for themselves if they like certain kinds of music or not. At this age, most children have a quirky sense of humour and are particularly good at sharing what they think is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. 

Where possible, include music and movement in everyday practice. Repetition is a crucial element of music education. It is well known that young children read their favourite books and watch their favourite movies and shows over and over again. Repeating children’s favourite songs and rhymes can be an easy way to influence their musical development.  Introduce a new nursery rhyme each week. Sing it, dramatize it, accompany it with instruments. Ask the children to change the lyrics. Thematically, choose songs that tie in with your learning outcomes. For example, outer space – sing Twinkle Twinkle, Starlight, Starbright, listen to The Planets, by Holst.  Dramatize going to the Moon or Mars – what would the children need to wear? What kind of transport would take them there? What would they see? Look up the NASA site for the planets.  

Establish a ritual for beginning and ending the day with a musical experience. Sing a ‘hello’ song, and a ‘goodbye’ song every day. Make up transition songs using traditional melodies and change the lyrics. Participate with the children. Encourage individual responses and praise originality and effort. Share your enjoyment with them. Make it fun! 

ECA Recommends: Music in Early Childhood

Music has long been regarded as an important part of early childhood education. In this module, explore music as an integral and vibrant part of a child’s family, community and culture, and how it can be utilised as a powerful tool for learning and development. Written by Dr Amanda Niland, this module is a vibrant look at the foundations of music, ‘musicking’ and musical skills — for both educators and children.

Julia Rennick

Julia Rennick is an early childhood music and movement teacher. She taught early childhood music at Gunnedah Regional Conservatorium for more than 25 years and was a peripatetic music teacher in a number of schools and preschools. Julia has been a mentor with Richard Gill’s National Music Teacher Mentoring Program since 2016, presents with Musica Viva and has created an online music program for families and educators. Julia is passionate about the extensive benefits of music education and believes it can begin at any age. She has worked with different age groups, from infants up to 80-year-olds. Julia was honoured to reach the final four in the 2019 ARIA Music Teacher Award.

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